‘We cannot keep pulling up the past behind us as we go’: Robert Reid on the rolling cultural disaster of unpublished Australian plays
A few years ago I was in London to workshop a script and showcase it to a pointlessly small group of producers who couldn’t have shown less interest if they were actively trying to hurt my feelings. As part of that week, I was sent to a range of theatres in the city, from the National to the Almeida. I saw work that was good, but no better than you might see here in Australia. In some cases, it was much worse.
On that trip I finally made it to a show at the Royal Court, a theatre that in my imagination, built up by my colonial education, had achieved near mythic proportions. This was the home of John Osborne and Sarah Kane. This was the place in the world that produced some of the best plays ever written. This was the one place in the world that really cared about playwrights and play writing.
The play I saw there was terrible. Not just bad, but properly terrible. Overblown, poorly structured, wildly unrealistic and assured of its own strutting bad boy attitude, taking a contrarian position against sensible politics on an issue of global importance. I wont say what play it was; but I will say that a major Melbourne theatre company staged it here a few years later, despite my strong recommendation against it to anyone who would listen, and largely recreated the terrible experience I’d had of it in England.
By contrast, by far the best show that I saw that week in London was Fatherland by Tom Holloway. It was raw, contemporary and urgent writing and had been given a powerful, confronting and innovative staging. I came away from that happily reflecting that Australian playwrights punch well above our weight on the international stage, on the few occasions when we are invited to it.
I bought a copy of the play text there and then. I’ve still got it as part of my collection. I’m not aware that it’s ever received a production here in Australia and, had I not seen it that night and grabbed the script afterwards, I might never have known it existed.
Holloway’s play was on at the Gate Theatre, a little alternative space that reminded me of the rough and ready indy spaces back home. I also went to the Bush theatre that week, when it was still upstairs above the pub, and while lining up for my ticket I noticed that they had a range of printed scripts available for sale at the box office for three pounds each. I was taken aback by the sight because I’d long since stopped seeing printed play texts for sale at theatres back home. The last place I remembered being able to get scripts of new works was at the Playbox, where they had a deal with Currency Press to print scripts as part of the programs for sale at the performance. The deal ended around the time Michael Kantor and Stephen Armstrong took over, rebranding and repurposing the company for a new millennium of Australian performance.
Of course, there’s scant economic rationale for printing play texts. There’s only a very niche market: school kids studying the plays that find their way to the syllabus and artists looking for the next play they might produce. Theatre is a live medium, and reading play texts is a poor cousin of seeing them in the flesh: certainly, once you’ve seen them, it must be a powerful play that would make you want to buy the text to relive it at home. This is what I mean about niche: it’s a small percentage of a small percentage of the overall book-buying market and the hard costs of publishing and distributing a printed book of scripts is prohibitive.
When I reached the front of house window at the Bush and asked, in all antipodean naiveté, how they made money from printing the scripts, they looked at me as if I were stupid. “It’s not about making money,” I was told. “It’s about preserving heritage.”
I would have said, not so long ago, that the point of publishing print editions of Australian plays is to enable them to be found again after their first production. I used to believe you can best find unfamiliar works by Australian playwrights by standing in front of a book shelf, a second hand bookshelf filled with out of print, hard-to-find locally written scripts, and scanning till your eye falls on one or another that calls to you. These are probably the prejudices of creeping middle age; but it remains true that on the shelves of Opportunity shops, secondhand book stores and antique shops there rest collections of Australian plays by writers long since forgotten by most of us in the rush to find the hot new writer, or drowned in the blaze of self-publicity that attended the work of the New Wave theatres.
Important writers like Sumner Locke Elliot, Gwen Meredith, Louis Esson, Dymphna Cusack, Bert Bailey, George Landen Dann and Betty Roland all received publication of their better known plays, often in hard-bound collections of major works, but also in compilations of short works that include also pieces by less well known writers like Barbara Vernon, Kathleen Carroll and John Ormiston Reid (no relation). Naturally, not all of these works are immediately accessible to contemporary readers. As time passes, so do idioms. Moralities change. But these printed volumes remain a source of untapped potential for adaptation.
Julian Meyrick makes the case in his second Platform Paper that adaptations come with a kind of built-in marketing potential that trades on the reputation of earlier more well established plays. It’s reasonable to assume that more people will be familiar with Chekov’s Cherry Orchard or Moliere’s Miser, and so a wider audience might be drawn to Stone and Fleming’s adaptations of the same. While there can be great value to re-coding such works with an Australian voice, there is a kind of craven wisdom in this thinking: it strikes me that colloquialising international works, rather than returning to, excavating and confronting historical works of Australian theatre, is continuing a colonial obeisance to the European canon.
For instance, I’ve long wanted to see Landen Dann’s Fountains Beyond produced by an indigenous theatre company with First Nations performers and writers interrogating the assimilationist policies of the ‘40s and ‘50s which the original play critiques. It would show how much, if anything, has changed. Fountains Beyond, I should say, is a story of how a white Australian local council appropriates the local indigenous cultural practices and is, for its time, a relatively sympathetic portrayal of the First Nations people. As it is and unedited, it would still be problematic as a straight remount: but the fact of its continued existence as a physical object, a printed script, allows for it to be rediscovered, updated and reclaimed through a contemporary adaptation. Generally these stories all but disappear from our too brief cultural memory, slipping awkwardly, guiltily off our cultural radar.
It’s this ongoing erasure of our local history, local literature and performance, that allows for the ignorance of our past to fester and gradually become thoughtless jingoism and white nationalism.
I argued in my own Platform Paper that an online script repository, such as The Australian Script Centre, goes some way towards addressing the problems of Australian theatre’s short memory and shallow self-reflexivity. It occurs to me, writing this now, that my dissatisfaction with such online distribution methods may stem from my failure of vision about the potential of the technology and a misidentification of market forces as technological short fall.
Of course, sites like these can use algorithms to suggest other plays the searcher might be unfamiliar with. Amazon-like prompts that “customers who bought Rusty Bugles also liked The One Day of the Year and The Ham Funeral” can be useful, and the more familiar the algorithm becomes with your own buying tastes, the more accurate they become at predicting your future purchasing habits. However, these algorithmic solutions are not without their problems, not the least of which is a narrowing of the individual searcher’s parameters, funnelling our inquiries into increasingly limited options as dictated by the preferences of the crowd, and pushing more obscure and difficult works to the unsearched periphery.
Even when classics of the Australian stage are adapted and/or remounted, they tend to be of the relatively recent canon, or the projects of artists with a special interest. Instances include Daniel Schlusser’s revivals of old Jack Hibberd plays in the 90s, Phil Rouse’s remounting of The Legend of King O’Malley, Here Theatre’s excellent restaging of Louis Esson’s The Time is Not Yet Ripe, the occasional suburban amateur productions of Away by Michael Gow, Tessa Leong’s The Club, this year’s upcoming anniversary production of Cloudstreet at The Malthouse and, of course, endless remounts and revisionings of The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll.
With the exception of Louis Esson, these remounted classics, like a Golden Oldies radio station play list, are largely drawn from from a narrow corridor of our history, between the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. While it’s undeniable that this was a boom time for Australian play writing, it’s also no coincidence that these plays are mostly drawn from the published catalogues of Currency Press and Yackandandah plays. The most popular and successful works of these New Wave writers benefit from the dedicated attention of Katherine Brisbane and Phillip Parsons’ Currency Press, and the less well known works were rescued from complete obscurity by Jeff Fiddes’ Yackandandah.
Fiddes, a former electrical engineer with a passion for theatre which led him to become a lighting and sound designer at The Pram Factory, formed his own semi-professional script publishing business in order to preserve John Romeril and Uncle Jack Charles’ 1972 script for Bastardy. According to Mark Leehy in Yackandandah Playscripts – A Publishing House in Progress, Fiddes believed that:
Here was a play that probably no-one was going to do again, and not many would read – but it was an excellent play which broke new ground and therefore was significant for both the present and the future. It should have been in print and easily available, not locked away in a government warehouse, its existence known only to scholarly researchers. But the only publishing house set up to do short run editions of playscripts was The Currency House, and they had their hands full already. So Jeff thought he may as well do it himself.
Fiddes originally planned to partner with a friend, who had recently begun work at a printers in Yackandandah in rural Victoria, to print the plays. The deal between them was struck over dinner and wine one night, but in the cold light of morning the friend balked at the financial commitment and left Fiddes to manage to project solo. The original plan had been to print 15 plays a year, hoping to publish a hundred before he died, and to sell them through mail order and special arrangements with local bookshops for two dollars each.
The ease and relative cheapness of the publishing process, which eventually settled into running off copies from two dot matrix printers in his Montmorency living room, resulted in works published in batches of 500 to 750, and a flood of the more obscure works from the ‘70s and ‘80s that can still be found in the kinds of places old scripts can be found.
Today Yackandandah has long since ceased printing and Currency struggles to produce new texts beyond those on the curriculum or that can find a presenting company to partner with. Today, small runs of works developed by indy companies such as Red Stitch are available at their box offices, in the mode of the Bush, and The Australian Script Centre remains a comparatively comprehensive resource for newer texts.
But the issue remains that finding texts from our invisible (well, let’s say opaque) canon, is hard if you don’t know to even look for them. And this all discounts works printed and published before the 1900s, many of which are available by arrangement from major collections in state or university libraries, the State Library of Victoria and the Alexander Library at UNSW for instance. Buried, as was Fiddes’ fear, in government warehouses, available only to a handful of academics who know what to look for and how to find it.
Publishing local playscripts is more than just a preservation of our heritage. Like a functioning criticism sector, a functioning publishing sector is important to the health of the sector overall. Its collapse is another sign of widespread systemic failure.
Playscripts inevitably bear the thumb prints of society at the time of their writing. They are social documents that record our development as a nation, recording the shifts in our thinking and social interaction. Society is modelled, challenged, parodied and exploded in the moments of their performance and the texts remain as ghosts that can be reanimated if we have the stomach to face up to who we were. These traces of our past can be mapped onto the present in the rehearsal room and on stage to reflect who we are, how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.
We continue to ignore our canon at our own risk. We cannot keep pulling up the past behind us as we go and expecting theatre to remain relevant to a wider audience. We invite increasingly great disaster with our wilful blindness. Anecdotally speaking, already only a shrinking number of Australians, even among those who go to the theatre, remember more than that last summer in 1953, and shockingly few remember even that.
In the absence of any ongoing engagement with our national literature, in the silence where our history should be, we allow nightmares to grow. Nightmares that we have fought from the stage over and over again, as we sink into the swamps of wordless ignominy and cultural amnesia.
Meyrick, Julian, ‘The Retreat of our National Drama’, Currency Press, Platform Papers, No. 39, May 2014
Reid, Robert. Hello World!: Promoting the Arts on the Web, Platform Papers, No. 27, Apr 2011, Sydney: Currency House.
The Australian Script Centre, https://australianplays.org/
Leehy, Mark. Yackandandah Playscripts – a Publishing House in Progress [online]. Publishing Studies, No. 2, Autumn 1996: 38-43. https://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=761566208012654;res=IELLCC